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Palestinian gunmen blow up UN club in Gaza City
Updated: 2006-01-01 09:30

Masked gunmen stormed into a club for United Nations workers in Gaza City on Sunday and blew up the drinking hall in a new sign of spiralling unrest ahead of a Palestinian election.

It was the first such attack in Gaza on a U.N. target and came against a backdrop of growing unease among foreigners. Just over one day earlier, a group freed three British hostages that had been seized to demand foreign pressure on Israel.

The bombing was another big blow for President Mahmoud Abbas, just hours after he had vowed to impose order ahead of a January 25 election and as militants announced the expiry of a de facto truce with Israel that they had followed at his behest.

Gunmen burst into the U.N. club, one of the few places that alcohol is served in conservative Muslim Gaza. It had been closed for the day. The attackers tied up the security guard and struck him with gun butts.

Then they set explosives in front of the bar, unrolled a detonator cable and blew up the charges, ripping up the roof and shattering the windows.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility.

The United Nations is generally viewed with sympathy Gaza. Its agency supporting Palestinian refugees and their descendants, more than half of Gaza's 1.4 million population, is the second biggest employer after the Palestinian Authority.

"The club has been there for 50 years," said one U.N. security worker. "This is the first time anything like this has happened."

Non-essential U.N. staff had already left Gaza because of the danger of kidnappings and a rash of violent protests and internal clashes.

"These events ... harm our international credibility and strengthen Israel's pretext to undermine peace and stop withdrawals," Abbas said in a New Year broadcast.

GROWING CHAOS Chaos has been increasing in the Gaza Strip since the departure of Israeli troops in September after 38 years of occupation intensified a power struggle among militant factions, gangs and security forces.

Gaza is widely seen as a testing ground for statehood.

The disorder has worsened in the run-up to a parliamentary election. Palestinian officials have said that the troubles could force the postponement of the vote.

Abbas has said he does not want any such delay, but it could actually help his fractured Fatah movement as it struggles against a challenge from Hamas Islamic militants seen by many Palestinians as less tainted by corruption.

The kidnappers of the British aid worker and her parents, seized on Wednesday and released on Friday, had said that they would capture more foreigners if their demands for pressure on Israel were not met.

Israeli artillery fire killed two Palestinian militants in Gaza on Saturday after rocket attacks were launched from a "no-go zone" it decreed in the north of the strip last week to curb such cross-border fire.

Palestinians say the buffer zone is tantamount to re-occupying areas that Israel gave up last year.

Militant factions said that as of January 1 they had abandoned their commitment to a "period of calm" that has delivered the longest decrease in violence since the start of a Palestinian uprising in 2000.

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